Careless talk costs more than game's spirit

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The Independent Online

Whatever Nasser Hussain said or did not say to Muttiah Muralitharan to reignite an old feud, the England management ought to insist that he keeps his lip buttoned in future. This has nothing to do with retaining the decorousness of the game, about which it is much too late to worry.

Presumably, part of the intention of foul-mouthed abuse, or banter as the players prefer to call it, is to reduce the effectiveness of the opposition. Thus, when Hussain described, or perhaps did not describe, Murali as "a f***ing cheat" and "a f***ing chucker" with that razor-sharp wit which has been his trademark down the years, he intended to demoralise him. Murali was disheartened enough to strike 19 from 22 balls as part of an irritating and possibly, for England, match-costing last-wicket stand of 28.

Maybe this is why Clive Lloyd, the match referee, decided not to impose additional punishment on Hussain (although he claimed he could not find supporting video evidence of the alleged misdemeanour). Hussain had already caused enough damage. As if Murali was not inflicting enough torture with his bowling.

Until Hussain opened, or did not open, his mouth the series appeared to have been played with an absence of hostility. Things have now changed. Sri Lanka reported Hussain and England were aggrieved. Graham Thorpe, who was speaking at the daily press conference after the third day, called it telling tales out of school.

England want it both ways. They congratulate themselves on taking it from the Sri Lankans, and it is true that when Kumar Sangakkara is bending your ear all day from behind the stumps, you must be stoic. Sangakkara is a genial, erudite man off the pitch but you need the patience of Job not to want to wrap your bat round his head on it.

Having denied themselves, England expect to be able to give something back. It would be a dull game that permitted no exchange of views, but the players are well aware that they are under constraints. In a speech last June, Malcolm Speed, the chief executive of the International Cricket Council, expressed his concern about the lack of improvement in player behaviour and instructed umpires and referees to lay charges. Speed wanted to ensure that "where an offence has escaped detection it does not avoid prosecution because of a technicality." Such as the lack of video footage.

If Hussain has evaded formal punishment, his intervention will continue to have repercussions on the series. There is suddenly an uneasy spirit between the teams. The Sri Lankan government newspaper, the Daily News, wasted no time in stoking the fires.

In an editorial yesterday, headed "Hussain's Hollow Heroics", the paper said that "the Pakistani-born Hussain was being more English than the English when he told rude things about Murali". Hussain was actually born in India, but no England player can have been more proud of his Englishness.

The Daily News was hysterically sinister. It talked of the colonial legacy dying out slowly and added: "It is not safe to "make a monkey out of Murali on his home turf. The populus isn't going to take Hussain's hollow heroics kindly. So tread lightly, old boy, tread lightly."

After that, it will be a wonder if the series does not explode. And who should be bowling and batting at the end yesterday, but Murali to Hussain. The Sri Lankans, however, deserve credit for keeping the lid on their emotions. They had two desperately close lbw appeals yesterday, from Dilhara Fernando and Murali.

First and subsequent viewings indicated that they should have been upheld. As the old axiom goes, both balls might have been missing leg and off stumps but middle was in big trouble. Perhaps the umpires are struggling to read Murali as much as the batsmen.

In the case of the Australian, Daryl Harper, familiarity may be breeding contempt. He has umpired 36 Test matches in all, 12 of them involving Sri Lanka. He has now stood in 10 of their last 14 games, seven of their last eight. That cannot be healthy for either party. There could be plenty of fireworks to come.